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From Bin to Market: Fixing the Recycling System

July 16, 2019

In the aftermath of China closing its doors to most Western recyclables, the issue of contamination has found its way from international markets to the humble curbside bin. Efforts to reduce contamination at its source have been launched by several entities. NERC Advisory Member The Recycling Partnership deploys funding it receives from major brands to conduct audits in communities throughout the United States, identifying contamination in curbside bins and educating stakeholders in reducing contaminants.

NERC State Member Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection has launched Recycle Smart, an initiative including the Smart Recycling Guide, which clarifies, via pictures and simple text, what can and cannot go into curbside recycling bins. In January, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation launched Recycle Right NY, which “focuses on one item per month that should either be ‘in’ a recycling bin due to its value in recovery or ‘out’ because it is either a contaminant to the recycling stream or appropriately recycled elsewhere.” And in June, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection launched a social media campaign known as Recycle Right NJ.

In addition, NERC has teamed up with three recycling trade associations to create Think Twice!, a poster that designates items that do not belong in recycling bins.

Not only do contaminants drastically reduce the value of many recycling commodities; they also present occupational and processing challenges at Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs). Recently, The Recycling Partnership and The Sustainable Packaging Coalition collaborated in the formation of ASTRX (Applying Systems Thinking to Recycling), “a systems-level project to increase recycling by strengthening each element of the materials supply chain to create reliable and valuable manufacturing feedstock.” The project’s first publication focuses on material flows at MRFs and reprocessors, which “aggregate and convert (recycled) materials,” according to ASTRX.

Given all the attention to contamination since China’s import ban, it’s not at all surprising that ASTRX found it to be a significant issue for MRFs. Removing plastic film from the stream, for example, can be an expensive undertaking, as it requires “updated equipment such as vacuum systems, ballistic separators, density-based air separators, robotic film grabbers, and more optical sorters.” Especially with the value of recycled commodities in a downturn, how are MRFs expected to implement such solutions?

As with a number of solutions put forward in the report, ASTRX suggests that brands assume increased responsibility for the challenges faced by MRFs and reprocessors. “Packaging companies that perpetuate challenging packaging, like multi-material packages and flexible packaging with difficult to recycle inks and adhesives, should be encouraged in particular to invest in better sortation equipment at MRFs,” the report advises.

Because the sheer number of packaging solutions currently in play leads to confusion for consumers, the report suggests that brands add a How2Recycle label to reduce mistakes in recycling decisions at the curbside bin. How2Recycle is a standardized labeling system developed by The Sustainable Packaging Coalition.

Concerns over plastics pollution have received unprecedented levels of attention from the media, and rightfully so. In its report, ASTRX recommends the Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR) Design Guide as a template for improving the recyclability of plastics. As does the ASTRX report, NERC Advisory Member APR’s guide emphasizes greater responsibility on the part of brands to “create packaging that is fully compatible with plastics recycling systems in North America.” In fact, while noting that other recycled materials covered in the report—aluminum, fiber (paper and cardboard), and steel—do not have in place such a resource as APR’s guide, ASTRX recommends especially that aluminum and fiber use the guide as a template for developing their own.

In 2018, NERC published its Product Stewardship and Extended Producer Responsibility Policy Statement, which states “that extended producer responsibility programs in the Northeast have a demonstrated record of increasing recycling, saving municipalities money, and creating recycling related jobs.” The ASTRX report, which is available for free download on the project’s website, aligns with what NERC and a growing number of voices in the recycling industry have been calling for: the active involvement of consumer brands, from the choice of materials to the use of recycled content to financial investments in MRF upgrades and community recycling systems.

If anything of positive value will come out of the mind-boggling media accounts of plastics pollution, it will include a rush by major consumer brands to take their seats at the table where solutions to the recycling crisis will be found.

By Robert Kropp, NERC Office Manager.

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